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When Will Chaim Read?

Barbara Bensoussan and Rachel Ginsberg

Your child is bright, a logical thinker, and is creative and artistic — but he just can’t seem to get the reading, and he’s becoming frustrated, depressed, and defiant. What are Orthodox Jewish parents to do when their child has been diagnosed with dyslexia? Some families have taken brave — if not drastic — measures.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

chalkboardIt was the bar mitzvah anxiety that finally broke him.

Chaim’s cousin had just turned 13, and Chaim, 12, was next in line. “Mazel tov, im yirtzeh Hashem by you,” family members pumped his hand and slapped his back in encouragement for the next big event. But Chaim was stunned, dejected, and shaken up. He is dyslexic, and although he managed to make it through sixth grade, he still couldn’t read. “Now I’ll be a total failure,” he thought miserably. “What kind of bar mitzvah boy can’t read?”

Years before, when Chaim started learning the alef-beis, he couldn’t seem to put together the letters and their sounds. When shown a ches, he would answer, “It rhymes with mess and comes before tes.”

“Chaim is my oldest, and I didn’t really have anything to gauge by, but although he was still little, I sensed something was wrong,” says his mother Mimi Levy,* who lives in theMidwest. “So I called a well-known tutor in my community to teach him. At first she laughed, telling me I was a first-time mother and needed to relax. But after an initial assessment, she agreed to teach him, as she, too, saw there was something off. Over the next few years we were constantly testing him to get some type of diagnosis of why he couldn’t read — he was clearly bright, but was indicating possible developmental delays in some areas. Looking back, he was quite a trooper as we schlepped him to one doctor after another. So many puzzles, games, and questions. He knew he was different, but couldn’t understand how.

 “Our school had gone above and beyond, allowing us to implement whatever modifications we needed in the class,” she continues. “For example, one tutor would spend two weeks learning one short pasuk with him. Then the rebbi would call on him, and he would read confidently in class. To his peers, this staging effect worked perfectly, and I thought I could buy him time. Then over the years, the rebbeim knew they could call on him for thought questions, as long as there was no text. The problem was, as the years went by, the gap grew bigger. At night, he would constantly ask me, ‘Why me? Why do I have to suffer like this? Why do I have to be so different?’”

When Chaim was eight years old, he came home in tears one day after the class divided into teams for a Chumash game. When his turn came up, he couldn’t answer, and his team lost. A dejected teammate called out, “You lost, because you can’t read.” At age nine, a neurological evaluation confirmed that he was dyslexic, “but dyslexia is a very generic term,” says Mimi. “It’s like saying car. What type, model, and year is it?”

The next years were a maze of possibilities and dashed hopes. “Every time we heard of a program promising to have our child read, we ran. We tried programs in different cities and invested several summers, but there was no breakthrough. Last summer we tried Skyping with a rebbi who is supposed to be an expert. It was slow, and difficult, and by the end of the summer the rebbi said he wasn’t sure Chaim was for his program after all.”


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